Mark O'Brien's autobiographical writings provide the inspiration for Ben Lewin's detailed, unsentimental feature that proves much more absorbing than expected.
The Sessions (set in Berkeley, Calif) stars John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy and Moon Bloodgood and uses candor without ever becoming corny in the least.
Afflicted with polio, Mark (Hawkes), a Catholic, has an iron lung and is transported around by an upfront assisting physical therapist Vera (Bloodgood). The late 30s fellow wants to finally have a physical relationship with a surrogate, but is weighed down by his religious convictions. Yet, a priest (Macy) believes this is an opportunity for Mark that should not be wasted, and he begins eight sessions with Cheryl (Hunt) whose life is changed by an unexpected outward tract.
Hawkes (impressive in films like Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene) has an interesting rapport with Hunt (who has shined in some independent productions since her winning turn in As Good As It Gets). The physical interaction of Mark and Cheryl carries feeling with it as Lewin (who also bears writing duties) doesn't go the contrived, patronizing route when it comes to story or lead character (like My Left Foot or Born On The Fourth of July).
At times like the pleasing Hope Springs there is the discomfort as these actors elicit strata to their characters that allow an audience to eavesdrop with some nervous expectation. Lewin allows them to subtly understate their roles effectively to make the subject's themes more resonant. The connection/empathy with the finely internalizing characters are important and vibrant as their personalities in doing what they can at this point in their lives.
The modest production has an appropriate down-to-earth look and feel with Bloodgood and Macy adding some spicy, sarcastic turns. Annika Marks is also more than something pleasurable for Mark as another therapist. And, amid the dichotomy of folks on view who are very personable one can't forget Adam Arkin (A Serious Man) as Cheryl's husband caught between the understanding and concern of her tricky profession. The Sessions hits the right notes based on its bracing way with the real-life circumstances from Lewin's assured helming and writing through the investment of seasoned pros like Hawkes and Hunt even during some revealing pillow talk.